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Why the interest in 35-hour week?

The renewed debate on something that doesn't exist probably means that bigger reforms are in the pipeline

The 35-hour working week was declared buried by President Nicolas Sarkozy in the summer of 2008, so why is it suddenly back in political conversation?

The obvious answer is attention-seeking: understandable when a Socialist Party wannabe raises the issue during the quiet spell of the Christmas holidays, but less convincing when members of the governing party, who are well accustomed to the spotlight, appear to want to resurrect the issue just to kill it again.

In the first days of the new year, Socialist Party MP Manuel Valls stuck his head above the parapet and enjoyed a couple of days in the headlines, challenging the party to drop its dogmatic support of the 35-hour working week.

Given that it was the Socialist Party leader Martine Aubry who originally introduced this legislation (it actually bears her name), the call for reform was a rather rude single-digit gesture in her direction.

His proposal solicited the expected howls of outrage from the party's left-wing, music to the ears of Valls, who sees himself as a reforming force within the party. He is a young, not-so-left-wing reformer of the French left. You can
imagine him seeking the title of France's Tony Blair (in the days when people liked him).

But after a couple of days, Valls, who struggles to make himself heard above the noise of Ségolène Royal and Martine Aubry and the eloquent silence of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, finally admitted that the 35-hour week he was attacking no longer really existed.

Strangely, this internal and pointless squabble on the left was taken up by France's centreright governing party, the UMP. This time, it was the new head of the party, Jean-François Copé, who said it was time to reopen the debate.

Copé had raised the issue as far back as November on taking over as chairman of the party. Perhaps jealous of the airtime that Valls secured, he again voiced the opinion that it should be scrapped. He was joined by former PM and current Defence Minister Alain Juppé, who called it "an old idea from the last century, completely out of touch with the economic reality of today".

It was left to President Sarkozy to remind everyone that 35-hour working week no longer existed, courtesy of the reforms passed by his government in the past couple of years. While the limit still exists as the legal working week, subsequent legislation not only allows employers and employees to negotiate extra hours beyond this threshold, but also actively provides financial incentives to do so.

What Mr Sarkozy added was that no subjects were "taboo" when talking about improving the competitiveness of French industry and the spending power of French workers, a signal that something is in the works.

The original idea of the 35-hour week was to encourage businesses to employ more people, reducing France's unemployment rate by capping the amount of time that their current staff could work.

While passing the law, the government of then Prime Minister Lionel Jospin and minister Martine Aubry promised that the reduction in available work-hours would lead to the creation of 750,000 new jobs.

While economists can safely confirm it never hit that level, studies vary between the optimistic 400,000 jobs created to 50,000 jobs destroyed, depending on the political leanings of whoever is carrying out the research.

Not only does the 35-hour week no longer really exist, but trying to measure its impact is so difficult that most people make up their minds based on political philosophy and back it up with statistics.

The latest report, at the end of January, by Coe-Rexecode, a private statistics body born out of a branch of the Paris chamber of commerce, focuses on France's declining performance against Germany and places the blame for this on the 35-hour week.

The group says the divergence in economic performance and a decline in French exports against German ones started around 2001, about the time of the introduction of the RTT, (reduced working time) legislation. A liberal economic study blaming the 35-hour week for France's poor performance against Germany - at the start of a year in which France will seek to align its tax systems with its neighbour - is no coincidence.

What the 35-hour legislation never addressed, and a fact well understood by employers, is that it is both difficult and expensive to employ people in France: while the social charges employers have to pay remain so high, their reluctance to employ people will stay.

If the 35-hour week is being dug up by the government, it can only be for two reasons. First, to use it as a scapegoat and scrap it, without addressing the more fundamental problem of the complication, inflexibility and expense imposed by France's employment legislation.

However, public opinion also comes into play. Despite it being as redundant as Louis XVI's hat, 50 per cent of French claim to be attached to the 35-hour week and 55 per cent say that scrapping it would lead to worse working conditions.

This is despite the fact that the average worker in France worked 41 hours a week in 2006 according to a European Commission report and 39.4 hours in 2009 according to a Eurostat survey. The French are prepared to support the week, even if it does not apply to them and no longer really exists.

Which makes it a handy government bargaining tool. If the government is serious about reforming France's economy and bringing it closer to Germany's, then some tough choices need to be made. Playing up the importance of the 35-hour week, with a view to climbing down and saving it, may help to sweeten real change in future negotiations between unions and business.

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